Some events in human history, a sage once noted, are so great that even those that weren’t born at the time can remember what they were doing at the time. A large number of these events come, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the 1960s, when satellite technology first tentatively fired live television images around the world. Whether the 1966 World Cup Finals fall into this category is open to question, but there can be little debate over the long term significance of the tournament. Quite asides from the small issue of the albatross around the neck of the England team that the final result brought, there are the images. If there’s one thing that the 1966 World Cup finals has got, it’s iconic images. There’s that shot of Bobby Moore holding the trophy aloft. Then there’s that shot of Roger Hunt turning away as the ball almost certainly doesn’t cross the line. And a million more besides.
There have been a million books on the subject but “1966 Uncovered” is different, claiming to tell “The Unseen Story Of The World Cup In England” and, if the book is anything to go by, what is remembered in the national consciousness as the sporting equivalent of an Austin Powers actually had more in common with the immediate post-war austerity period. The players land at airports that are shrouded in good old British mist and, while they’re not put up in military barracks in the same way that athletes were at the 1948 Olympic Games, they’re seen in strangely spartan room, kitted out with enough plywood to build a raft big enough to float a B&Q store. They dress very much as their fathers would have done (albeit with a dollop of Brylcreem), and seem to spend most of their time out signing autographs and reading newspapers. In many ways, you couldn’t imagine them being much more different to modern footballers than they are.
The book opens with interviews with Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer (Beckenbauer, unsurprisingly, is the more lucid and entertaining of the two), and then settles into the main event. The book tours the country, dividing itself into chapters on the different regions in which the tournament was held. Augmented with punchy text from The Guardian’s Harry Pearson, Robinson and co-author Doug Cheeseman have trawled through local and national press archives to bring together a tremendous collection of photographs that steer well clear of the well beaten track. The over-riding impression given of the tournament is how cobbled together it feels. Roker Park has wooden bench seats bolted onto its terraces to meet FIFA requirements. The North Koreans arrive in Liverpool for their quarer-final match against Portugal by train. Of course, it’s not all off-pitch coverage. The matches themselves get plenty of space too, much of it shedding new light on a competition that, for most of us, has only been seen from one perspective. A reverse angle view of Geoff Hurst’s shot that may or may not have crossed the line remains inconclusive. Eusebio leaves the pitch having scored four times against North Korea drinking from a hot water bottle. Each image is as engrossing as the last.
It would be unfair to describe “1966 Uncovered” as merely a “coffee table book”. The punchy prose and sheer volume of unseen photographs alone lift it above that status. As a bit of a geek for this sort of thing, I would have liked to see something of the tournament’s strangest venue (White City Stadium in London, which was used for the group match between France and Uruguay after the owners of Wembley Stadium refused to cancel an evening greyhound racing card for a pesky World Cup match), but such criticisms are trifling, compared with the wealth of other goodies on view. Presuming that it’s not too late for amendments, you should probably put it on your Christmas list right now.